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Big Dreams At Metro High

Who is this girl in the mirror, this girl who six months ago couldn't speak up, or allow herself to be loved, or smile at her own reflection? So many things used to get in the way.

April 08, 2001|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

That admonishing voice in her head, the one she heard so many times in her childhood: Nobody cares what you think. You are not worthy of love or attention. You will never amount to anything. You are not pretty. Or the cruel echoes of the guilt thrust upon her fragile soul: If only you were a better sister, a better daughter, a better student. You slut. It is all your fault.

Even when she managed to silence those voices, to pretend this upbringing was normal, there was still her self-image to contend with. One, two, three times an hour, she surveyed every centimeter of her pale skin, the shape of her green eyes, her nose, the arch of her brows. Anything this big mirror could capture, or that smaller one could confirm, or the way this thicker one magnified each and every one of her defects.

Who is Guadalupe Vasquez now?

An 18-year-old high school junior who no longer needs to carry three mirrors in her purse, who can say she is beautiful in front of a crowd and who dreams of being a nutritionist, wife and mother. "Lupe" is now on her own and away from the source of her childhood trauma. But she still needs her afternoons sitting alone at Union Station, her favorite place for solace; amid the roaring of the trains, Lupe retreats and meditates. Her broken heart can forgive, and her tattered spirit can heal, she has learned in a one-of-a-kind class--a weekly support session for adolescent girls who have lost their way in L.A.'s gritty streets.

There are many Lupes in Los Angeles schools. Often, they live in poor neighborhoods, come from broken families and have a history of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. More and more, they embrace motherhood or are criminal defendants before they are adults. They are often addicted to drugs and alcohol and fulfill their need for acceptance by joining street gangs. In the city's furious pace, they are hardly noticed.

But not at Metropolitan High School. In the heart of downtown's Skid Row, the adults in Los Angeles' largest continuation school are paying attention. For many teenagers, alternative high schools are the last resort for repairing their troubled lives, earning a diploma and finding some direction. Metro, as it is called, serves as a safe haven for Lupe and her peers.

Classes here are structured around individual student-teacher contracts instead of standardized lesson plans. Students work at their own pace until they earn enough credits for graduation and are assisted in finding part-time jobs and counseling.

Last fall, school officials collaborated with the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women to begin a program that aims to build self-esteem, broaden minds and elevate expectations in teenage girls. Already in place at Duke Ellington High School in south Los Angeles (75 girls have gone through it), the program was created when juvenile court officials became concerned about the increasing number of girls in the system.

"We started talking to people in the community and realized there are prevention programs out there, but none like this," says Paula Petrotta, the commission's executive director. "Having been a rape counselor, and through my work with domestic-violence policy, I know that if you feel good about yourself, if you feel that no one has power or control over you, you tend to make better choices."

On paper, the guidelines for the Young Women at Risk program sound like improbable psychobabble: teach a young girl to love herself, and she will learn to succeed. Week after week, Lupe and the others were inculcated with messages of acceptance and strength, and gradually--sometimes painfully--their lives began to take new shape, new direction. Now look into Lupe's eyes and see that something has changed, something intangible, beyond scientific measure.

Sept. 19, 2000

Meet Lupe the first day Letty Herndon and Toni Perez walked into Metro and introduced the girls to the concept of self-esteem. Herndon, who owns Life Skills Connection, a motivational company that inspires people to better manage their lives, and Perez, a consultant, were hired by the women's commission to mentor the girls. With moderator Nancy DePaolo, assistant principal in charge of counseling services, the women serve as teachers, therapists and role models.

"Girls, when they are ages 6 to 11, are free spirits," Herndon says outside class. "They are authentic. By the time they are pre-adolescent, they are confused. Combine that with the fact that these girls are from depressed communities, and the situation is compounded. An individual in a depressed community doesn't know what they don't know. They get isolated in their depressed and dysfunctional world. Girls who become victims of their culture stop expressing themselves."

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